Letter from MarQui: June 2020

Letter from MarQui: June 2020

This is the twelfth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

Last month's killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is the most recent, high profile example of excessive use of force by law enforcement, and as a result of it, the topic of officer aggression has been brought to the national forefront. Far too often in recent history, we have seen officers show unnecessary force. As if the murder of George Floyd wasn't incendiary enough to Americans who increasingly feel antagonized by the very people tasked with making us feel safe, fuel was added to the fire when EVEN MORE instances of officer aggression and misconduct occurred at a number of the subsequent protests across the nation. Protesters were met with squads of officers clad in black riot gear with paintball/pellet guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas who, on several occasions, opted to engage rather than mediate. At a protest in Buffalo, New York, officers pushed a 75 year old man onto the sidewalk, leaving him bleeding from one ear. Officers in Atlanta inexplicably tased two college students who were fully complying with them. Officers in Asheville, NC terrorized a medical tent that had been set up to help protesters. These incidents and others have left many Americans fed up with the police's oppressive behavior and demanding systemic changes in law enforcement.

What isn't being talked about is the use of excessive force by the other law enforcement officers; those who work inside jails and prisons. While notable, those instances of unwarranted officer aggression seen in street protests are rare. However, this happens on a regular basis behind bars. The difference is that there's no mass demand on behalf of us for an end to it. This is another clear example of society's indifference to the treatment of incarcerated individuals. Being confronted by officers in riot gear with the same paintball guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas is a regular occurrence in here, and the threshold for these officers to use force against us is much lower than in society. The purpose of riot gear is to contain riots. But between 2010 and 2019, there were only 10 notable prison riots in the entire nation, which begs the question: Why is riot gear used so frequently in here?

Officers "gear up" behind bars for a number of reasons, most of which in no way justify riot gear or weapons. One such reason is to conduct basic cell searches. While I was in jail, the officers would shakedown the cellblocks once every month dressed like a SWAT team, yelling at us and ordering us around. "MOVE IT, MOVE IT, MOVE IT! HURRY UP! GET IN FORMATION! EYES AHEAD! NOBODY BETTER MOVE!" If we were sleeping, they would snatch us out of our beds. If we weren't moving quickly enough, they would push us with their shields. They would taunt us for their own entertainment, telling us we stink, we're dirty, we're trifling, etc. They would tase us, shoot us with their paintball guns, and roughhouse us without provocation. Talking while in formation, reacting to their commands too slowly, or simply looking behind you were all grounds to have force used against you. In fact, some of the officers seemed to be ITCHING for a chance to violently engage.

During one shakedown that I remember vividly, the spot in which I'd been ordered to stand was directly beside an AC vent. Cold air from the vent was blowing into my ear, which was extremely uncomfortable, so I angled my head sideways. Seeing this, two officers rushed toward me, yanked me off my feet, and slammed me to the floor. Just for angling my head away from the AC vent. During another shakedown, I witnessed a Hispanic, immigration detainee tased and dragged out of the cellblock by officers because he wasn't obeying their commands to turn around. The officers didn't know that the guy couldn't understand English. Another inmate who was asleep when officers came to search had his shoulder dislocated when the officers snatched him off the top bunk, causing him to fall to the floor.

It seems not to matter if they are performing shakedowns, dispersing a crowd [crowd gatherings are a violation of prison rules], breaking up a fight, or doing something as simple as getting a mentally unstable inmate under control, jail and prison officers don their riot gear, grab their riot control weapons, and use force against us with near impunity.

Not only is abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers - whether in prison or in society - a betrayal of their duty to maintain a safe and secure environment; it actually creates and perpetuates an "us versus them" mentality that provokes resentment, rebelliousness, and even unlawful behavior. It is also counterproductive to our rehabilitation, as offenders who resent law enforcement will one day reenter society harboring that same resentment. We are STILL American citizens! Force, or the overt threat of it, should not be used against another human being unless it is absolutely necessary. As protesters have demonstrated this past month, nothing good can come from this sort of oppressive treatment. As law enforcement reforms begin to take place across the nation, I can only hope that they extend to the officers on this side of the fence as well.